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Not Losing My Religion so much as Sending it to Timeout.... - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
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Not Losing My Religion so much as Sending it to Timeout....
I went with Eleanor last night to the Buddhist Center downtown where she's been chanting a few times a week for a few weeks.  It's hard for me not to intellectualize everything, or put it into columns of pro/con, compare/contrast, but I tried, and am trying, to gauge the experience entirely unto itself without reference to known benchmarks- my own, or Western/Christian in general.

It begins with a constant chant of the mantra of this particular sect (their term), Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō- then follows a transliterated text for maybe ten minutes before returning to the mantra.  This all occurs in a sanctuary setting- a leader facing a scroll and candle from an altar/lectern/bimah looking platform (stop, Ray), and the people in chairs either side of a center aisle.  I used this time mostly for meditation, wanting to know a little more about what was being said first.  This was fine, it turned out, although the preferred mode is with eyes open facing the scroll, not closed.  This little point helps emphasize that you are not supposed to internalize the experience totally.

Next, a recent convert to their group received his membership- complete with his own scroll, membership certificate and commemorative photos.  It was clear from his speaking about it that he had reached this point only after much study and experience, which is the sign of a group that cares more about members than it does about membership.  (Another local faith community I'm considering, more in the Christian tradition but with some Buddhist components to its experience, recommends six full months of connection before taking that step. Most Methodists will haul you in after four New Member classes, and the true fundies try to get your conversion and your checking account number as soon as you're "saved.")

After that, those chairs proved they were not pews, as they quickly formed an obtuse circle-like setting and everyone, including Eleanor (still considered a guest) and me (wow! a guest bringing a guest!), just talked for about an hour.  The median age was probably low to mid-30s, but several were younger and a few much older than even us.  Even more striking was the diversity of ethnicity, economics and life experience.  I don't recall anyone talking in Contemporary Issues Sunday School about their brother being murdered- or about attending a comparable chanting session in Milan in one of the most beautiful venues they'd ever experienced.

Then, some brief chants and the time was over. We truly did go in peace.

----

Since the chanting- in general, and the repeating of the Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō mantra- is so central to the practice, I wanted to know more.  The meeting itself, and some materials on their website, explained it in some roundabout terms, but I was looking for something a little more direct.  So, Wikipedia. With some even more shortening of its passages, the phrase works out, more or less, to-

I take refuge in (devote or submit myself to) the Wonderful Law of the Lotus Flower Sutra-

Wanting something that scanned a little better, I looked around some of the other alternate terms in the entry and came up with-


Devoted to the mystic law of the Lotus Flower Sutra.

I repeated it that way to Eleanor. Yeah, she said, that's about right.

A "sutra," generally, is a form of law or rule (yes, pervs, the Kama Sutra is another book of those).  The Lotus Sutra is the handed-down path to enlightenment identified as the highest and purest of the Buddha's teachings by the Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren around AD 1253.  (There is relatively little talk of the Buddha himself, at least by that name, in these sessions- the focus being more on achieving Buddha-like enlightenment yourself rather than worshiping the fat guy in the statue.)

So devoting yourself to law? Yeah- I've already done THAT in any number of ways. The particular law? Gotta learn it to know.  But I'm okay at least devoting to understanding more about it- which gets me okay with the chanting of it.  Does it have mystic powers in and of itself?  Not from the outside in- but I already can be powerfully influenced by music, and memorable quotes, and even much of Christian sacred music where I don't believe a word of what is being said but am still moved by how it sounds.

At the risk of offending, I listened to my own version of the mantra I'd worked out-

Devoted to the mystic law of the Lotus Flower Sutra-

and realized it had the same meter and internal beating as something silly but, yet, appropriate:

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey.

You don't understand a word of it at first- until someone or something, yes, enlightens you, that what they're really saying is-

Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.

And once you "get" that, it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

----

I've tried to keep snark out of both understanding these new things and talking to these people about my lifetime of faith journeying (I did tell several of them last night that I felt I didn't lose my way in United Methodism- rather, that it lost its way in its excessive internalizing and anti-LGBT stances).  I was particularly determined not to bring up an old joke that I've used ever since I first saw it in reference to the Sean Connery-in-a-monastery movie Name of the Rose. A magazine at the time reviewed it with the headline "Hey Hey We're the Monks!"

Until, again, Wikipedia.  In trying to work out the meaning of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, I read the explanation above, but also went on to its inevitable descent into "Popular Culture"- where the first entry is this-

The mantra was used in the final episode of the TV series The Monkees, "The Frodis Caper". Micky claims he received it when he sent in a cereal box top.

If that's not karma, I don't know what is. Or what kind.  But most importantly, I saw a room full of kindness, and no sign that these people were going to turn into self-absorbed assholes the next time they ran into one of us outside their holy place.

And hey hey, that's fine.
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Comments
thanatos_kalos From: thanatos_kalos Date: August 21st, 2016 02:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I actually am a fan of Buddhism, particularly some traditions' focus on crtitical thinking, and have been fortunate enough to see a ritual in practice when I was in China a few years back. I think you'd be suited to it in a lot of ways. :)

(I may also be considering getting a lotus tattooed on my shoulder if I go to Bangkok in December. More for the Odyssey reference and connections to ancient Egypt, but there's a lot of similarity in meaning. :)
warriorsavant From: warriorsavant Date: August 21st, 2016 05:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for an interesting and informative post. I will follow your and Eleanor's adventures on this path with great interest. If this is truly part of your spiritual quest, then I wish you luck and success. Regardless, you seem to have happened into an extraordinary group of people.

Although not spiritual at all myself, I'm going to chime in with some miscellaneous comments. Hope somewhat relevant, and apologies if am going over things you know.

"Sutra" means "thread," the same root as our medical term "suture." It is the "thread" of a teaching, meaning the key points; essentially meant as a mnemonic and/or springboard for fuller discussion of that teaching.

When I had learned of this branch of Buddhism, I was told the chant meant "I have faith in the Lotus Sutra." (Not sure if exactly the same school of Buddhism that you experienced, as there are a myriad of branches of Buddhism.)

The Vietnamese temples here* chant something that translates to "I have faith in the Amida Buddha," who is viewed as the Buddha still closest to humankind, and therefore most accessible and helpful. It is closer to appealing for enlightenment from a higher power than to chanting yourself into enlightenment. That having been said, I think the chanting itself is the tool, not so much what the mantra is. It is a way of opening(?) changing(?) the mind. The same could apply to chanting prayers/saying the rosary in Christian practice, whether or not Christians would take kindly to that statement. As to whether it leads to enlightenment, or a better rebirth, I couldn't say.


*I think there are 2 of them, only a few blocks apart. Sounds like the old Jewish joke about having to have 2 temples: yours and the one you wouldn't be caught dead in.

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